If you’re non-European or you grew up in a non-European country, can you recall the first time you ever heard of Europe? What was the first thing you learned about it and its people? I come from the Philippines, and I first learned about Europe when I was a child. Not from school books or world geography lessons or from television, but through classical music.
It was back in the 80s and way before the age of the internet. My parents had a vinyl record collection of the European classical masters. Beethoven, Chopin, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, Liszt. I grew up with them playing in the background. When you’re a child, you ask a lot of questions and each answer only yields more queries. What is that playing? It’s music by Ludwig van Beethoven. Who is Beethoven? A famous musician from a country called Germany. Where is Germany? In a place called Europe.
And thus was I introduced to the world of Europeans. While I first learned of America through its imported candies, pop music, and Hollywood stars, I literally first heard of Europe through the melodies of The Nutcracker Suite, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Fantaisie-Impromptu, and more. Imagine what kind of European image forms in the mind of a child exposed to that kind of music. Classical music brought me to Europe way before I ever set foot in it. And it made me dream of one day going to Europe.
A mashup of 57 classical tunes by 33 composers
Classical music originally refers to that period in music history between 1750 and 1800 when Western musical traditions reflected the aesthetic principles of classical art. This was the era of Mozart and Haydn. But we now use classical music as a blanket term for Western art music from the medieval period to the present. This art music began in Europe in the eleventh century in the form of monophonic chants which later developed into other classical music forms such as concertos, operas, and symphonies.
A musical crash course on the history of classical music
Like art, music is the sound and expression of people’s culture, experiences, struggles, and ideals. When you listen to any piece of music, you get a glimpse into the life and times of a composer or a musician. And when you listen to the musical traditions of a certain culture, you get a sense and feel of its people’s character and history.
Copenhagen Philharmonic performs Maurice Ravel’s Bolero during a flash mob
So when you are suddenly moved to tears while listening to the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique, or your hair begins to rise as Ravel’s Bolero crescendoes, or your feet start marching uncontrollably when you hear Strauss’s Radetzky March, you can’t help but wonder – who are these people that they can make such music? Classical music speaks dimensions about Europe, its culture, and its inhabitants.
If you’re European, you’ll probably shrug it off or just roll your eyes. Humans tend to take for granted what is theirs for the taking. But here it is anyway. You belong to a heritage that has great power to edify, enlighten, inspire, provoke, and move without need for words or hard sell. And we are only talking about music here without covering art, philosophy, science, and other fields. Classical music is enough to show what kind of heritage you come from, whether you appreciate that or not.
The Muppets perform their own version of Georges Bizet’s Habanera
It’s amusing but also saddening to see Europeans either bashing and trashing the idea of a common European identity or trying so hard to promote it like it will die if they don’t. Europeans have too long a history of hating and loving each other, of integrating and disintegrating and reintegrating, of making war and then peace and then war again. With such a troubled past, you can’t blame them if the concept of a European identity starts sounding like a joke. But sometimes it takes an outsider to see what insiders don’t. And from where a non-European like me stands, Europeans only have to look at their heritage to see how this common identity glows in the light and in the dark. Whether they like it or not.
Classical music is just one part of that powerful heritage. And it is and will always be one of Europe’s greatest gifts to the world. Through it, Europe connects with the world and the world connects with Europe. To some Europeans, I might sound like just another wide-eyed, awestruck outsider. Maybe I am. Or maybe they just haven’t listened long and hard enough to classical music to realize what a glorious heritage they own.